What's in a name: first classes

September is upon us, and we are all gearing up for the new classes, new courses. With the pandemic still very much on, none of us know quite what the new school year may turn out to be. Yet we are teachers and as such we must always be ready for the unexpected.


Nina Koptyug.

In Russia, September 1 is the universal day for the new academic year at all levels, from pre-school to university. Traditionally there are no classes yet, it is named The Day of Knowledge. It is either the day allotted to getting acquainted with the school, teachers and students, and/or the day to invite guest speakers, give talks on various topics, and even organize short concerts and tea parties. Every educational institution is free to decide what to do, though practically all of them begin with the general assembly, weather permitting usually outside. I have worked out a routine for myself which I share with my colleagues; it works well both with adults and children.

Teachers are addressed by their full first name and patronymic, especially at school. A patronymic is the father’s name with a female or male suffix; it does not exist in most other countries. Since mine is an unusual one for my country, I always write it on the board in advance and pronounce it distinctly, with the appropriate stress. I have yet to meet a person who is able to say it correctly on hearing.

This may present some difficulties with international students because the mere word “patronymic” often tells them nothing. If they are adults, I suggest using the full first names. I also ask what the traditional way of address exists in their country; thus we may come to such familiar versions as Teacher or Professor.

I ask my students to introduce themselves in turn, and listen carefully so that I am able to say their names correctly. Usually in the school system, the first name is used, though some teachers may prefer to use their last names only. With modern diversity, it is useful to ascertain what your students expect from you, and use the correct way of addressing them. We are EL teachers. We may also suggest that we use the forms of address common for the countries where English is the main language.

I always start any new class with Greetings. Those whom I have had for a few years, or those who already know my system, quite often rush ahead of me with them. “Hello Children (Class, Course)! I am happy to see you”. Young learners respond during the very first lesson, happily shouting “Hello Teacher, we are happy to see you!” If they are beginners, I write both the greeting and the response on the board and pronounce it clearly several times. It usually takes older learners and adults two or three lessons to respond in kind. NB: you have to mean it, feel that you are really happy to see them in your class.

Rules are important. Children love structure; they want to know what they are expected to do during a lesson. I introduce some Golden Rules, like for instance, “There are Exceptions to practically any Grammar Rule”. Don’t they love it. I explain the beginners of any age that they will get marks or points for every task they perform, NOT for anything they did not manage to fulfill. This eliminates that familiar school “bogeyman”, the fear of making a mistake and thus getting a lower grade. “You are OK with the articles now but the modals need a bit more work” works wonders. With very young learners, I use only three grades, “Excellent, Good, Again”. When they know they get another chance, they usually work harder, strive to overcome the problems.

It is very important to understand that in spite of all our work, some students would still make mistakes. A few would not be able to master some aspects, be it pronunciation, grammar, or any of the traditional four skills. When we notice such a student or student, regardless of their age, we should try to develop whatever skill they manage to master. Some of them may skip the articles but their speech is understandable. Others may read quite well but have trouble hearing and deciphering a dialogue or any longer speech. Yet others may speak fluently but their writing may be a total disaster.

Today, I believe what we teach is Communication. If your talented student needs to pass a TOEFL or an IELTS exam, be sure to explain to them that they should work hard, do all the training exercises, and prepare really well before they undertake the examination. If however they only need to achieve a certain level so that they can function well in the society, get a job, what they really need is the ability to speak and understand what is said to them.

I am often asked by children and adults alike: “How many years does it take to achieve your level?” The answer of course is the process of learning never stops. In order to be able to use a foreign language like your own, one should continue reading, writing, listening and speaking all their life.

To sum up: come into your new class with an open heart. Do not be discouraged if at first you do not see any results. You cannot succeed if you do not try!

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